All Eyes on Georgia and Trump as Jon Ossoff's Bid to Flip Congressional Seat Reaches Climax

Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are neck and neck in the polls ahead of Georgia's 6th District vote on Tuesday

Jon Ossoff volunteers holding campaign door hangers in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, June 18, 2017.
JOE RAEDLE/AFP

WASHINGTON – Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel has become the biggest political story of the week, and could even affect President Donald Trump’s political standing in Washington in the weeks and months ahead.

The election in Atlanta’s suburbs has been officially labeled the most expensive congressional race in the history of American politics. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into it in recent months, with the Democrats trying to “flip” a congressional seat that has been reliably Republican, while the GOP is making every effort to hold its ground.

The special election was called after the district’s Republican congressman, Tom Price, was chosen by Trump to be his secretary of health and human services. The two candidates vying to replace him are Handel, the former secretary of state for Georgia, and former Democratic congressional aide Ossoff, who also happens to be Jewish.

The 6th District has been considered a reliably Republican district for decades, and Price won the last election by a margin of over 20 percent. But recent polls have shown a complete deadlock between Handel and Ossoff, with a very slight lead for the Democratic contender.

Republican candidate Karen Handel during a campaign stop as she runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District in Alpharetta, Georgia, June 19, 2017.
JOE RAEDLE/AFP

“The very fact that this is a close race is bad news for the Republicans,” said Aaron Keyak, a leading Democratic political consultant and former congressional staffer. “This is a district that for decades was seen as safe Republican territory. If the Democrats win there, it will be a serious upset.”

Indeed, when the special election was announced earlier this year, few people expected it to be a competitive race. But then Ossoff’s long-shot candidacy began to generate excitement and enthusiasm on the Democratic side. When the first round of voting took place in April, Ossoff fell just short of receiving the necessary 50 percent of the vote, against a fractured Republican field that included more than 10 candidates. Tuesday’s vote, which will be the second and final round of voting, has already broken records not only in terms of spending, but also the number of early votes being cast across the district.

But Ossoff’s unexpected rise has been met with a determined Republican effort to contain him. Ever since Handel emerged from the first round as the Republican candidate, the entire party has gotten behind her, including campaign stops by Vice President Mike Pence and members of Trump’s cabinet, and also a number of supportive tweets by the president himself.

The White House realized that if a solidly Republican district falls into the Democrats’ hands, it will create a sense of crisis within the Republican Party – and the blame would be directed at the president.

Tamar Hallerman, the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the largest-circulation newspaper in Georgia), told Haaretz Trump has become a central part of the special election, for both sides.

“The excitement around Jon Ossoff’s campaign started in large part because of a sense of intense opposition to Trump,” she said, noting Ossoff promised on the campaign trail to “make Trump furious” by flipping the district.

During the first round of voting, Handel tried to maintain some distance from the president, who won the district in the 2016 election but barely – as opposed to previous Republican presidential nominees, who carried it with large margins.

Now, however, as the campaign nears its end, both candidates have changed the way they approach the president, according to Hallerman, who has been covering the race from within the district for the last 10 days. “Ossoff has moved to the center,” she said. “He realizes there are many more Republicans than Democrats in this district and that he’s going to need some support from them in order to win. He’s trying to appeal to well-educated Republican and independent voters, who are somewhat embarrassed of Trump, but aren’t as angry as the Democrats who go after him all the time.”

Handel has moved to embrace the president, realizing she will need all the Republican support she can get. “In the first round, Ossoff received 48 percent of the vote. All the Republican candidates combined received just a little over 50 percent. Handel thinks that if she can consolidate the entire Republican vote behind her candidacy, she’ll win. Ossoff, meanwhile, thinks that if he could draw a relatively small amount of Republican voters, and keep the Democratic base with him, he’ll win,” said Hallerman.

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaking at a campaign office in Chamblee, Georgia, as he runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, June 18, 2017.
JOE RAEDLE/AFP

At the end of the day, the old political cliché that it’s all about turnout strikes again.

If he wins, Ossoff will become one of the youngest members of Congress (he was born in 1987), but will join dozens of other Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

During the campaign, his Jewish identity was not part of the political discussion – although Israel did come up once, when Handel attacked the Democrats for “Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.”

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told Haaretz that “being a Jewish candidate in American politics is no longer a big story – and that in itself is somewhat of a story.”

In the past, a leading Jewish candidate in a Southern district would have probably become more of a news story, but Halber said that now, “being a Jewish candidate, in most parts of the country, is just not that much of a big factor.”

The biggest story emerging from the special election, and the reason it has drawn so much interest on the national stage, is the effect the result could have on Trump.

“If Handel wins, Trump will go on Twitter and make fun of the Democrats for investing so much money in this race and still falling short,” a Republican congressional staffer, who asked not to be named, told Haaretz. “If, on the other hand, Ossoff wins, this will be seen as a direct result of Trump’s first six months in office, and you will see more and more Republican members of Congress starting to criticize him and creating some distance between themselves and his agenda.”

The polls, as noted, are extremely close – and also not completely reliable, since special congressional elections are considered extremely hard to survey.

“This race is completely hyped,” said Daniel Barash, a Democratic strategist who has worked on dozens of congressional campaigns. “The national media is looking at this as a referendum on Trump, which is divorced from how the contest is actually playing out in the district and how the voters are looking at the election.”

Hallerman said the race “really feels like a toss-up,” and that “it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen. There is a sense that Ossoff’s rallies and events have more enthusiasm and energy in them. But on the other hand, the Republicans have sent a lot of big names into the district to help Handel.”

The voting stations will close at 7 P.M. Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday (2 A.M. in Israel), and Haaretz.com will be providing live updates.